UK Games Expo
By Martin Tideswell
UKGamesExpo (May 24, 25 & 26, Birmingham, England)
The answer to the question: ‘What do you want from a gaming convention?’ depends, of course, very much on who you ask. However, there are certainly universal themes which will resonate on both sides of The Pond. These are things which any Con attendee will tell you are vital to their enjoyment of a gathering of geeks. Food, accommodation, transport links, parking and the knowledge and helpfulness (or otherwise) of staff and volunteers are right up there in terms of priorities for most gamers. These things don’t make or break a Con for your average dice-roller, but they do help to enhance the enjoyment of what is an intense, perhaps once-yearly experience on which they are shelling out their hard-earned pennies (or cents). They are also probably the things which will determine whether or not first-time attendees (who know no better) will return in future years.
That said I have to give a huge pat on the back to the organisers of this year’s UKGamesExpo in Birmingham for ticking lots of boxes.
I have attended UKGE for the last four years and seen the event grow both in terms of size and popularity following the demise of Gen Con UK. This year the Con migrated a few miles down the road to a new and vastly superior base at the National Exhibition Centre. The Hilton Metropole Hotel is a modern, bright and easily accessible venue which coped well with the influx of gamers who flooded its bars, restaurants, coffee lounges, corridors and suites. Its size and the facilities it offers were clearly uppermost in the minds of event organisers when they decided to switch to The Hilton because UKGE had, quite simply, outgrown the rather drab Clarendon Suites which, in truth, felt like part 1970s convention centre and part masonic lodge. While the latter aspect made for an interesting setting for horror roleplaying games, the fact that the venue closed its doors at 7pm on a Saturday and gamers were forced to de-camp over the road to the nearby Strathallan Hotel was something of a pain in the arse for all concerned.
There were no such worries this year as thousands of gamers attended the Con over three days – many of them choosing to take up the offer of discounted rooms and stay overnight at the hotel. It has to be said the food on offer at the venue was far superior to that available at UKGE’s old home and the new venue is just better all round – air conditioned, spacious and (for the most part) well sign-posted. Of course, in many ways it is the number of volunteer helpers and their usefulness which is key to the smooth-running of any Con and in this regard UKGE really did come up trumps.
There were certainly plenty of yellow t-shirt-wearing stewards around all day and in the evening to point you in the right direction if you did get lost or if, like me, you hadn’t read the small print on one of the maps in the event programme. When I began setting up to run a game of Living Forgotten Realms in some random room on the first floor I was genuinely gobsmacked when a volunteer arrived and asked if the GM would like a coffee. I kid you not. You see, UKGE may be tiny in comparison to some of its North American counterparts such as Gen Con Indy (UKGE had 2,800 unique visitors last year – 4,000+ attendances over the three days) but what it lacks in terms of size it makes up for in heart.
At one point, a volunteer called Patrick came over to me, my wife and my friends to ask if my children – aged six and eight – were having a good time. It was Lois and Mina’s first Con and they were dipping their toes in the water by spending their pocket money, trying out some board games in the Family Zone and having their faces painted. (Always with the face paint…) Patrick was thrilled to hear it was their first Con and told us enthusiastically how he and his fellow event organisers were trying to make UKGE more family-friendly and ensure there were plenty of activities to keep youngsters, as well as hard-core gamers, occupied.
He didn’t know I was a journalist, didn’t know it was my 14th Con all-told, and didn’t know I’d been lucky enough to attend Gen Con Indy last year. Patrick was just a regular volunteer chatting away to a guy with his kids wandering around the trade hall and, as such, proved to be a terrific and honest ambassador for the event. Speaking of the trade hall, it felt bigger, more spacious and better laid-out than its equivalent at the Clarendon Suites and – as usual – yours truly picked up a bunch of DnD miniatures to add to the 800+ I have carefully stored at home. I should also, at this point, say thanks to Wizards of the Coast for the freebies (floorplans and adventures) mailed over to volunteer DnD Dungeon Masters at UKGE. They are appreciated and it makes us feel like you haven’t forgotten us!
For the purpose of gaming conventions, I’m a roleplayer. It’s just what I do, and what I’ve been doing, for the last 30 years. I don’t (generally) play board games, I don’t do cosplay and have no real interest in card games – although I love the fact that other kindred spirits do (and in ever increasing numbers). When I attend Cons it is to play DnD, Call of Cthulhu and other RPGs with like-minded individuals who share my passion for table-top storytelling.
On that note, the advent of the inaugural Cthulhu Masters UK Tournament (based on the hugely-popular CMT which is a staple of Gen Con) was a real bonus. Organised by John Dodd, who oversaw an impressive 250+ RPGs at this year’s UKGE, it saw dozens of Cthulhu players go head to head in a competition which utilised every Cthulhu setting – from Roman through Medieval, Gaslight, 1920s, WWII and modern day. The threads of each scenario were brought together beautifully in the grand finale (yours truly was fortunate to make it through and came second) and huge credit must go to the writers for emulating their counterparts at Gen Con in delivering a terrific roleplaying experience.
There were plenty of other tournaments too – from the Settlers of Catan UK Championships to the Carcassone UK Championships and the Netrunner National Championships – with superb prizes such as game gear and even a flight to the States up for grabs. Miniatures and war gamers were, as usual, well catered for and I was chuffed to see the onsite cinema showing not only the film of 2012 (Avengers Assemble) but also the excellent fan-made homage to Judge Dredd (Judge Minty) and The people versus George Lucas.
UKGE shows all the signs of an event which has found a winning formula – passionate volunteers with a healthy respect for gamers based on the fact that they are still gamers themselves. Next year the only thing I’ll being doing differently is staying the full three days.
Attendance (people days): 5734 (48% rise)
Unique individuals: 3512 25% rise